This Day in History: White Earth Roll Commission

On June 30, 1913, Congress created the White Earth Roll Commission to determine which White Earth Band members were full blood and which were mixed blood. This was part of a larger scheme to cheat Ojibwe people of their valuable timber and farm land.

Here’s the quick background. The Dawes Act of 1887 broke the system of tribal ownership of reservation land, allotting land to individual Indians so it could be sold more easily to businesses and settler. It affected White Earth and most other reservations around the country. A 1906 federal law–specific to the White Earth Reservation– lifted land sale restrictions. It allowed mixed blood Indians and full-blooded Indians deemed “competent” by the Interior Department to sell their land.

Within three years of the 1906 law, 85 percent of the White Earth land was bought by private owners, “at minimal cost to the purchasers,” according to: Ransom Powell and the Tragedy of White Earth, an article published in the Minnesota History magazine (Fall 2012). Legal challenges followed, saying the allotments had been wrongfully obtained from both full bloods and minors. One of the key questions, then, was whether the individual White Earth sellers were indeed full bloods or not.

The White Earth Roll Commission was created to determine which band members were full blood and which were mixed blood. It was created at the urging of Ransom Powell, the attorney for the major timber interests who had purchased White Earth lands. His clients wanted the roll to show more mixed bloods and fewer full blooded Indians, thus clearing the land titles. Powell was appointed as one of the two commissioners of the White Earth Roll Commission. Powell not only got paid to serve as  a commissioner, but the work he did benefited his clients.

We recommend reading the full article, but here are a few highlights.

The article notes that Powell’s strategy included delay tactics. The Commission did not finish its work until 1920, at which point major logging in White Earth and most of Minnesota was finished.

In addition to doing family ancestry interviews, the White Earth Roll Commission hired two physical anthropologists to determine whether band members were full blood or mixed blood. The job went to Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, head of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution, and Dr. Albert Jenks of the University of Minnesota. They were paid with timber company funds. According to the article:

In 1915 and 1916, Hrdlicka and Jenks examined 696 allottees who claimed to be full bloods, comparing their physical attributes to the Pima Indians of the southwestern United States, whom the anthropologists considered the most racially ‘pure’ American Indians. They carefully measured and calibrated hair, eyes, nails, gums, head shape, and teeth of White Earth Ojibwe and compared this data to measurements of the Pima. Another exam involved pressing a fingernail across a subject’s chest to see how irritated the skin became. The more an Ojibwe person’s physical attributes resembled a Pima’s, the more likely she or he would be considered to be a full blood by the anthropologists. They also measured attributes of 100 Frenchmen and 50 Scots, who were, in Jenks’ words, “the two racial groups contributing most of the ‘white blood’ to the mixed blood Indians of Minnesota.” The results were messy and in some cases dubious. Children with the same parents were classified differently, and full-blood children were attributed to mixed-blood parents.

The final results of the family ancestries and anthropological work favored Powell’s clients. “Of the 5,173 White Earth allottees, only 408 were considered full bloods–and 306 of them died before the roll was finalized in 1920.”

By 1933, non-Indians owned approximately 94 percent of the White Earth land that had been allotted. In 1986, Congress passed the White Earth Settlement Act, which provided some compensation to heirs. As of 2012, about 10 percent of White Earth was again in Ojibwe hands.

The White Earth Roll developed by Powell “remains to this day the basis for membership in the White Earth Band and for claims regarding federal or state benefits.”

News Updates: Tribal Recognition and Place Names

Passing along a couple of recent news items of interest.

  • Indian Tribe Recognition Process Overhauled: According to an AP story on MPR: “The Obama administration is making it easier for some Indian tribes to obtain federal recognition, addressing a longstanding grievance of many Native Americans.The new regulation updates a 37-year-old process that has been roundly criticized as broken because of the many years and mounds of paperwork that typically went into each application.”
  • Calhoun Not the First Lake With a Controversial Name: MPR also reported on a push to rename Lake Calhoun. The shooting deaths of nine people at a black church in Charleston, S.C., has focused attention to the continued use of Confederate symbols. Calhoun was a former South Carolina Senator and  proponent of slavery. An online petition to rename Lake Calhoun garnered more than 4,000 signatures. As Cloud Man used to have his village by the lake, how about Cloud Man Lake?

One thought on “This Day in History: White Earth Roll Commission

  1. […] It’s important to know that only about 10 percent of the White Earth Reservation is in Indian hands. U.S. government assimilation policies in the 19th Century included efforts to break up communally held tribal lands. Through a policy known as “allotment,” the government took tribal lands and divided it among individual Indians. Among other things, that made it easier for settlers and business interests to buy it. One glaring example of how White Earth was cheated out of land by the timber industry is found in the article Ransom Powell and the Tragedy of White Earth in Minnesota History, and in our June 30 blog.) […]


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